This Time, the Evacuation Complaints Involve Traffic, Gasoline

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:22 PM EDT

( - Better safe than sorry, Houston Mayor Bill White said on Friday, as he applauded the many thousands of people who braved "a lot of inconvenience" to flee Hurricane Rita and protect their lives.

The resulting traffic jams -- some of them 100 miles long -- are sure to be a focus of post-hurricane, Monday-morning-quarterbacking in Texas and in Washington.

The number of voluntary evacuations couldn't be predicted, Mayor Bill White told reporters on Friday morning.

He also noted that when the first mandatory evacuation orders went out on Tuesday, motorists were told to fill their gas tanks and bring water.

"It's better that there are people out there that have gotten out of harm's way than not," Mayor White said. "This is one of the most dangerous storms that we've confronted." He said the storm's slight move to the east does not mitigate the danger.

"Whenever you evacuate...then you will find that there are some problems. But the mayor said local officials - in Houston and Harris County -- executed their parts of the emergency plan "flawlessly."

In response to distress calls from the jammed highways, the Salvation Army, working through a motorists' assistance program, distributed water to people stuck in their cars Thursday night, the mayor said. The water had been stockpiled for Katrina refugees who recently moved to Houston.

And state officials brought in gasoline tankers, fitted with special pumps, to fill the many tanks - and gasoline stations -- that ran dry in the rush to escape the Houston area.

The Houston Chronicle reported on Friday that many complaints involve the Texas Department of Transportation, which was slow to arrange a "contraflow" plan to ease congestion by turning inbound lanes into outbound lanes - especially in areas that were under mandatory evacuation orders.

"Why wasn't TxDOT on the same page?" the newspaper quoted Houston City Councilman M.J. Khan as saying.

And some say the state should have anticipated the extra demand for gasoline in the evacuation areas.

Paul Burka of Texas Monthly told Fox News on Friday that some families were packing all their belongings into two and three cars - further jamming highways. They saw the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and decided to save as many of their material possessions as they could," he said.

Burka also said there are questions about panicked people -- far from the water -- making a dash inland, even though they were not asked to evacuate.

Bus explodes

In a horrifying development on Friday, a bus carrying elderly hurricane evacuees from the Houston area exploded and burned on I-45 near Dallas

Initial reports said as many as 20 of the evacuees died.

The bus fire, shown on cable news channels, added to the traffic misery on I-45, which has been jammed for two days with people fleeing the storm.

The bus fire happened in Wilmer, a Dallas suburb, and the bumper-to-bumper traffic came to a standstill as emergency vehicles arrived on the scene.

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